One question I wish leaders asked themselves.

Although my hope is that this question would help anyone at any stage of their leadership journey, the leaders I would particularly like to call to attention in the title of this article are those who currently have the decision-making power, the title and the position.

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In my experience, many managers and leaders with good intentions are asking themselves this blanket question, “How do I empower others to succeed?”

It’s generally accepted that this is a good question to ask, where empowerment is all positive, and leaders are there to enable and support those they lead and “create” more leaders. Even so, I had a nagging feeling that this question was not quite ideal. Let’s break it down.

  • Perhaps what a leader considers empowering may not actually be helpful to those they lead. The people we lead are diverse individuals with diverse circumstances and diverse skillsets. Naturally, a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective.
  • The definition of empower is to “make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” To “make” or to “create” leaders, seems to imply that we get the credit for them achieving their leadership status. What if they were already leaders to begin with and we simply need to provide them the opportunity to lead? Essentially support them and/or get out of their way?
  • How a manager defines “success” may also differ from those they are trying to help and to serve.

How might we believe we are “empowering” when we are not?

One scenario is where managers start acting like the engine powering a train, or a rocket launcher sending a rocket into the sky. The train or rocket does not get to choose the direction or the speed, and the manager is expending unnecessary effort managing and trying not to micromanage, then either exhaust themselves, or end up with all the credit for the achievements of their employees, whether intentional or not. The employees feel boxed in, rushed, stifled, and unable to take pride in any of their work. A demotivating situation all around.

What if managers and leaders instead asked themselves, “How do I create space for others to lead?”

Let’s break this question down.

  • Take mental clarity for example: With limitations defined, the goals explained, now people don’t have to think about them anymore and are free to build on a solid foundation. The word space is open to interpretation, and intentionally so.
  • To me, surfacing new leadership is success in itself. Going back to “what makes someone a leader is the display of leadership, and no title is required”; this idea leaves the door open for anyone to walk through and take on the role without being given a title or asking for permission.
  • Those with the decision-making power and the title create the “space”, whether psychological, emotional, or physical, for leadership to manifest. It may appear passive, but it is actually a very active yet patient form of leadership.

We are not responsible for “creating leaders”, we are responsible for making the space for them to come forward.

We are not the experts on what form their leadership should take, we are not judges for the validity of their leadership. Decision-makers, we are there to provide opportunities, to recognize and foster their leadership when they choose to step into the role.


1. Emotional Intelligence is correlated with good performance and good leadership.

2. The compassion we have for ourselves determines the compassion we have for those we lead.

3. Jean’s Rule: Treat yourself as you would treat someone you cherish, treat others as they would like to be treated.

4. As leaders it is our responsibility to believe in the legacy and potential of all who follow us. If we are unable to truly believe they are, have been, and will be leaders, we are asking the wrong questions.

5. Leaders, let’s ask, “How do I create space for _______ to lead?”

6. Those with the decision-making power and the position create the “space”, whether psychological, emotional, or physical, for leadership to manifest.

7. Leaders do not create other leaders. Leaders create space for other leaders to step up.

8. People lead when they choose to, not when we tell them to. Anticipate leadership and make room for it rather than overlook and stifle it.

UX Designer and Researcher based in San Francisco. I write about design, leadership, resilience, and emotional intelligence.

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